Why Does a Language Die?
On the Slow Demise of Tayap in Papua New Guinea
I was in Gapun to try to answer a specific question, namely: Why does a language die? It took me a long time to realize that that is the wrong question to ask. Or it is to ask a question that has an obvious answer: a language dies because people stop speaking it.
Of course, one could ask why people stop speaking a language, and that would be a bit more interesting. But when that question is asked by linguists, who are among the few people seriously concerned about language death (along with a few language activists who have discovered, usually too late, that their ancestral tongue is moribund, and brittle), the tenor of the question is always a disappointment, or a scold.
When a linguist or a language activist asks: “Why do speakers of a language stop speaking it?” what they usually really mean is: “Why have speakers of that language failed us? Why have they allowed an irreplaceable artifact, an invaluable jewel in the treasure chest of humanity, an exquisite creation that ought to have been preserved forever—or at least until we get around to documenting all its characteristic phonemes, its possibly unique morphology, and its undoubtedly idiosyncratic syntax—why have those poor shortsighted ingrates who should have known better, in spite of whatever prejudices they may have faced, maybe in spite, even, of the threat of genocide, why oh why didn’t they understand how valuable their language is and teach it to their damn children?”
These days, many linguists who write about language death do so without even considering much the people who speak the languages. They are fond of likening endangered languages to endangered species: an obsolescent Uzbek language is compared to a threatened orchid; a dwindling Papuan language is like a California condor. At a time when we are all encouraged to concern ourselves with the environment and sustainability, many linguists seem to believe that the way to elicit sympathy and support for dying languages (whatever that might mean in practice) is to talk about them in terms of biodiversity and species loss.
There are certainly worse ways of thinking about languages than as fleshy flowers or rare birds. But a difficulty with comparing endangered languages to endangered species is that metaphors like those direct our attention to the natural world. The natural world, however, is precisely where we should not look in order to understand why languages die. After all, tender young orchids are not sent to schools where they are taught in a cosmopolitan language they’ve never heard, and where the only thing they end up learning is how misguided their traditional orchid ways are. California condors are not converted to Christianity and informed that their traditional condor way of life is Satanic.
To be fair, none of those things happen to languages either. But they do happen to people who speak the languages that linguists and language activists are concerned about.
By encouraging us to think in terms of ecosystems rather than political systems, comparisons of endangered languages to endangered species obscure the simple realization that language death is anything but a natural phenomenon. It is, on the contrary, a profoundly social phenomenon. Languages do not die because they exhaust themselves in the fullness of time or are killed off by predatory languages of greater phonological scope or syntactic richness. Languages die because people stop speaking them.
Rather than exploring why a language dies, I came to realize that the question I needed to ask, instead, was: How does a language die? I needed to discover what had to happen in a community, among speakers of a language, that resulted in parents ceasing to teach their language to their children. Where does language death start? How is it sustained? Does it have to involve a conscious decision on anyone’s behalf? Can a language die without anybody really wanting it to?
By my estimate, Tayap will be stone-cold dead in 50 years’ time. When I first arrived in Gapun, the language was spoken by about 90 people, out of a population of 130. Now, 30 years later, it has about 45 speakers, out of a population of about 200. The village grows, the language shrinks.
As far back as anyone in Gapun has been able to remember, though, Tayap has never had more than, at most, about 150 speakers: the entire population of Tayap speakers, when the language was at its peak, would have fit into a single New York City subway car.
Tiny as that count is, such a small language was not unusual for Papua New Guinea. Most languages spoken in the country have fewer than 3,000 speakers. And linguists estimate that about 35 percent of the languages (which means about 350 of them) have never had more than about 500 speakers.
Contrary to received wisdom, and common sense, this constellation of tiny languages was not the result of isolation; it didn’t arise because villages were separated from one another by mountain barriers or impenetrable jungle walls. Quite the opposite: throughout Papua New Guinea, the areas that have the highest degree of linguistic diversity (that is, the most languages) are the ones where people can get around relatively easily, by paddling a canoe along rivers and creeks, for example. The areas where travel is more difficult, for example in the mountains that run like a jagged spine across the center of the country, is where the largest languages are found (the biggest being a language called Enga, with over 200,000 speakers).
The conclusion that linguists have drawn from this counterintuitive distribution of languages is that people in Papua New Guinea have used language as a way of differentiating themselves from one another. Whereas other people throughout the world have come to use religion or food habits or clothing styles to distinguish themselves as a specific group of people in relation to outsiders, Papua New Guineans came to achieve similar results through language. People wanted to be different from their neighbors, and the way they made themselves different was to diverge linguistically.Comparisons of endangered languages to endangered species obscure the simple realization that language death is anything but a natural phenomenon.
Large swathes of neighboring groups throughout the mainland share similar traditional beliefs about what happens after one dies; they think related things about sorcery, initiation rituals, and ancestor worship; they have roughly similar myths about how they all originated; and before white colonists started coming to the country in the mid-1800s, they all dressed fairly similarly (and they all do still dress similarly, given the severely limited variety of manufactured clothing available to them today—mostly T-shirts and cloth shorts for men, and for women, baggy, Mother Hubbard–style “meri blouses” introduced by missionaries to promote modesty and cover up brazenly exposed breasts). Neighboring peoples hunt the same pigs and cassowaries that inhabit the rainforest; and they all eat sago, or taro or sweet potato—whichever of those staples their land is capable of growing.
In terms of the languages they speak, though, Papua New Guineans are very different from one another.
While the different groups of people who live in the area where the Tayap language is spoken are not isolated from one another, Tayap itself is a linguistic isolate, which means that it isn’t clearly related to any other language. Its lexicon is unlike any other language’s, and it has a number of other grammatical peculiarities that make it unique among Papuan languages in the region.
No one can explain why Tayap is an isolate. But until the end of World War II, when the villagers began to grow cash crops and relocated their village closer to the mangrove lagoon to try (unsuccessfully) to entice buyers to come buy the rice and, later, the peanuts that they grew so hopefully, Gapun used to lie on top of the highest mountain in the entire lower Sepik basin. At only about 500 meters above sea level, this mountain isn’t particularly high today, but several thousand years ago, it was its own island.
That an isolate language is spoken on the site of what used to be an isolated island suggests that perhaps Tayap is a particularly ancient, autochthonous language that already was in place in some form before the sea receded and the Sepik River was formed, facilitating the various waves of migration from Papua New Guinea’s inland to the coast that began occurring several millennia ago.
Whatever its origin, and despite its minuscule size, the fact that Tayap is as fully formed a language as English, Russian, Navajo, or Zulu means that it must have developed and remained stable for a very long time, for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. All those years of efflorescence came to an end, though, suddenly and decisively, in the 1980s. By the middle of that decade, children who grew up in the village, for the first time in history, were no longer learning Tayap as their first language. What they were learning, instead, was a language called Tok Pisin.
Tok Pisin has an estimated four million speakers in Papua New Guinea, and it is the most widely spoken language in the country. Unlike Tayap or any of the other native languages that are spoken across the country, though, Tok Pisin—whose name literally means “Talk Pidgin” or “Bird Talk”—has a very short history. Like most of the other pidgin languages that still exist today, such as Jamaican Creole in the Caribbean, or Cameroon Pidgin English in Africa, Tok Pisin arose in the late 1800s as a plantation language. In the Pacific, European colonialists brought together large numbers of men from very different language groups to labor on their plantations; the laborers processed copra (the smoked and dried meat of coconuts, pressed for oil) or collected sea cucumber, a culinary delicacy in Asian cooking, which fueled a massive industry throughout the south Pacific during the mid- to late 1800s.
What did the thousands of men—who had no common language but had to work together, following orders given by their European overseers—do? They invented a new language. That language took much of its vocabulary from the language of the European order givers (so tok means “talk”; sanap means “stand up”; pik means “pig”; misis means, tellingly, “white woman”; and masta, even more tellingly, means “white man”) But its grammar was firmly rooted in the local languages that the men themselves spoke back home.
From its genesis in the late 1800s, Tok Pisin was an object of ridicule for many Europeans and Australians. The prevalence and, to their mind, the distortion of English-based words fooled English speakers into thinking (and many still think) that the language was simply a baby-talk version of English. And most of them spoke it as such, barking orders like “Bring him he come”—their tin ears and racial prejudices preventing them from perceiving the correct form, Kisim i kam. From the perspective of the Papua New Guinean men who spoke the language among themselves, what white people spoke to them was baby talk. They had a derogatory name for it: tok masta (“white man talk”), they called it dismissively, sniggering behind white backs at how badly white people spoke the language they used to boss black people around.
As the decades passed, this invented language set. Verbs gelled, word order settled, a grammar coagulated. Men who were released from their labor contracts brought the language back home with them, spreading it like rhizomes from the plantation to the villages. And just like the bolts of factory-made cloth, machetes, axes, and ceramic seashells that they received as payment when they were sent home, the men brought back Tok Pisin as a prestige object. It was a prized possession, the key to another world. Men who had been away on the plantation together spoke the language to one another in the village, to convey their worldliness and to intimidate their country-bumpkin relatives and neighbors who’d never ventured more than perhaps a few days’ walk beyond the village into which they had been born.
Excerpted from A Death in the Rainforest © 2019 by Don Kulick. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.